Sunday, May 9, 2021

‘Botswana’s water problem exaggerated’

In its 2015-2019 Country Strategy Paper for Botswana, the African Development Bank (AfDB) says that “the limited contribution of agriculture to GDP is mainly due to the severe water shortage and inadequate rain.” The bank says that the contribution of the agriculture sector to GDP has continued to decline and is now under 2.5 percent from a peak of 3.4 percent in the 1990s.

Most will agree with the first statement but Meshack Balebetse, who has dealt with water management at a very high national level, says that the statement “should be taken with a pinch of salt.”

What is known as the Water Apportionment Board in the Department of Water Affairs grants rights to people across the country to abstract water from underground as well as rivers. Balebetse says that far too many people who have been given these rights are sitting on them.

“It is on record that more than 50 percent of farmers allocated water rights across the country for abstracting water from flowing rivers are not using those rights,” he says, giving the example of Notwane River to back up his next point. “When new applications are made, the Water Apportionment Board rejects them on grounds that Notwane River would be over-abstracted if more applicants were given water rights. The reality is that those with water rights for the river are not using them at all.”

While he acknowledges that Botswana does indeed have a water shortage problem, Balebetse raps citizens on the knuckles for having got a little too comfortable after independence. In a past when there was no primary water infrastructure like dams, water transfer schemes and treatment plants, Batswana communities across the country harvested enough rainwater to see them through dry spells. Former Administrative Secretary in the Office of the President, Lebang Mpotokwane, recalls that when Gaborone was being built, almost every government house had a rooftop rainwater harvesting system built into it by the contractor. This is a system of catching rainwater where it falls with the roof serving as the catchment. The rainwater is collected from the roof of the house and stored in a tank.

After independence, the new citizen government set up primary water infrastructure, bringing water to every ward and as the years went by, almost every home. In Balebetse’s assessment, what should have been citizen empowerment ended up as disempowerment because people stopped harvesting rainwater to augment the water they were getting from the government.

While he lauds the government for spending a lot of money to develop the country’s primary water infrastructure, he says it should have gone farther to introduce initiatives that would help conserve this very scarce resource.

Contrary to what the AfDB says, Balebetse reiterates the view of Israeli consultants that even with the little water it has, Botswana would actually be able to export food if that water was properly harnessed. Those consultants were basing their assessment on their own country’s experience. While water-stressed like Botswana, Israel harnesses the water well enough to be able to grow food it exports.

“Botswana has never had above average rainfall compared to other Southern African Development Community countries nor has it enjoyed adequate water supply,” says Balebetse, adding that “the current available water resources in the country would never increase nor be adequate but will dwindle as is currently the case in the southern part of the country.”

Despite this less than ideal situation, Balebetse says that up until the disruption of agriculture by mining, the country managed to develop an agricultural sector that made a significant contribution to the national economy.
“It is no doubt that Botswana is a water-stressed country and is receiving comparatively low average rainfall on an annual basis compared to other Sub-Saharan countries which experience good rains and enjoy ample water supply for agriculture. However, Botswana had since developed a comparative advantage over the years for cattle and food production under these desert conditions. The reason for that is that despite this adversity, agriculture meaningfully contributed to Botswana’s economy in the past. The situation was disrupted by the development of mining sector after independence,” Balebetse says.

His elaboration on the latter point is that when people “rushed to towns” to work in areas of a mining-driven economy, agriculture suffered badly as more and more people abandoned farming and with it, farming practices that by now, would otherwise have been modernised and commercialised.

“If at all Batswana had been proactive and had developed their intrinsic knowledge of farming and food production further, the stated contribution to GDP would not have been declining but incremental, however small. At the very least, it would be stable. Lack of pro-activeness in harnessing the dwindling water resources for agricultural use over the years is a contributing factor to the downward trend in the given statistics,” he says referring to the 2.5 percent quoted by the AfDB.┬á

Balebetse retains the conviction that harnessing water for food production has never been fully exploited because little has been  done to use the very scarce water resources in some parts of the country where there is relatively abundance. The examples he cites with regard to the latter are the Okavango and Chobe areas where two mighty perennial rivers flow. He laments the lack of initiative that was on full display following some studies that recommended that rice and sugar cane be grown in the Okavango region under an irrigation scheme.
“The project has never seen the light of day,” Balebetse says.

In addition to water harvesting, he adds that water can be harnessed through wastewater reuse and implementing modern farming practices like application of fertilisers, row planting, use of dripping systems for irrigation to minimise water use.

“Even commercialising agriculture will help in the growth of agricultural output yearly. In Botswana, we are currently living as if we are a tropical country where rainfall is abundant. Even when God answers our prayers for rain, most people don’t harvest rainwater and the land immediately becomes dry thereafter. This is despite the fact that rather than allowing it to run off, the rainwater could have been collected for reuse on-site. It can be used to water gardens and livestock, for irrigation and recreation and with proper treatment, can be used domestically,” he says.

After working for the Water Utilities Corporation for 22 years, Balebetse left last year to form his own company, Golden Ace, which provides water and environmental engineering consultancy services. At WUC, he had risen to the position of Regional Director of Operations and Maintenance, responsible for water and wastewater infrastructure and systems. Previously he worked as Water Quality Manager responsible for national water quality management and compliance, optimisation of water and wastewater treatment processes, quality assurance systems, enterprise-wide risk management as well as safety, health and environment programmes. While at WUC, Balebetse also coordinated the commissioning of numerous water supply infrastructure development projects in the major urban centres and was a resource person for the planning and designing of major water treatment plants and reticulations.

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